The story of how an entirely obscure, itinerant black musician who in a recording career spanning eight months produced one minor regional hit, who died in 1938 at the age of twenty-seven and who languished in almost complete obscurity for twenty-three years before becoming one of most influential musicians of the 1960’s is a tale that can be viewed through many different lenses. Some may see it as a series of lucky accidents; others as support for the belief that the work of the true artist will eventually penetrate the collective consciousness when the time is right, as it did for William Blake and Emily Dickinson.
While there are many theories of history, the two that dominate modern consciousness are the largely Western view that history is a linear narrative of human progress, and the Eastern view that history is a series of cyclical patterns: what goes around comes around. In the narrative view, history is shaped to make sense, and as more facts become available through research, the more sense we can make of it . . . or so it is believed.
Neither theory is very helpful in understanding Robert Johnson’s rise to fame. Cyclical theory is a classic example of human beings trying to simplify chaos by attaching structure to happenstance. The narrative theory falls short because Robert Johnson’s narrative remains full of holes and contradictory evidence. The man himself appears to have been a walking contradiction, making it even more challenging to define his essence.
The truth is that we shape history through our perceptions, just like we shape our understanding of everything else. The brilliant musicologist Elijah Wald said it best in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: “There are no definitive histories because the past keeps looking different as the present changes.”
We do know that Robert Johnson had virtually no influence on the development of black music. As Wald wrote in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of Blues, “As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note.” Son House met him when he was still learning how to play (and once after Johnson had allegedly made his legendary pact with the devil); Muddy Waters may have heard him play around Clarksville. The absence of Robert Johnson covers in the 1940’s and 1950’s speak volumes about his lack of influence.
Everything changed when in 1961 Columbia released King of the Delta Blues Singers, the first compilation of Robert Johnson’s meager recording output. That release coincided with two emerging movements: the folk revival in the United States and the nascent interest in American blues in the U. K. John Hammond gave a new kid on the Columbia block named Bob Dylan an advance copy of King of the Delta Blues Singers and Dylan was stunned by the sheer intensity of the music. Eric Clapton would come to recognize Robert Johnson as “the most important blues musician who ever lived.”
Musical influence is also subject to human perceptual biases and limitations, and many “influential” musicians and recordings often prove to be disappointing listening experiences—things we’re “supposed to like” because some expert said it was “influential.” I’ve listened to many “influential” albums that register a zero on my aesthetic pleasure meter, and after getting over the “what the hell is wrong with me” phase, I’m more pissed off than anything else—pissed off because I distrusted my own instincts and submitted to the power of the expert.
What separates Robert Johnson from the rest of the influential pack is his unusual ability to grab and hold the listener with just his guitar, his voice and his poetry. Robert Johnson is one of the few artists I can never play in the background, because he insists on leaping into the foreground. When I hear one of his guitar intros or the sound of his voice, I stop everything I’m doing and just listen.
Every year, usually in the darker winter months, I go into a blues jag, an annual ritual that helps me reconnect with both my real self and the things in life that really matter. I immerse myself in blues and listen to nothing but blues for a couple of weeks. When I sense the time has come, I turn off all phones, computers and lights, lock myself in my room and listen to The Complete Recordings straight through until the end. I immerse myself in Robert Johnson, shutting off the analytical side of the brain to experience the music on an emotional-intuitive level. I let go of the need to control the moment and, for two hours, I let his music fill my soul—music that consists only of a voice and a guitar, sparsely recorded with unimaginably primitive technology, but some of the most deeply engaging music I have ever heard.
The remainder of the jag is filled with the music of other great blues artists, from Memphis Minnie to Muddy Waters. When I feel my soul has been cleansed from the particles of bullshit I accumulate by living a life in a largely unreal, impersonal world, I end the jag in the same way I started it: The Complete Recordings.
There are two competing “complete collections.” The one I chose to review is Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, released in 1990. A more recent collection, The Complete Recordings (Centennial Collection), came out in 2011. The latter has been praised for its improved sound quality, most noticeable in the clarity of voice and guitar. Unfortunately, manipulating the frequencies to get that clarity sacrificed the lower frequencies, and I prefer music with a strong bottom. The content of the two collections is virtually the same right down to the alternate takes, so you may want to sample both to determine which is more compatible with your ears, headphones and speakers.
I should disclose one bias before I begin the review. Although his personal history remains sketchy, it is amply clear that Robert Johnson loved fucking, smoking and drinking. As readers of this blog know, I too love fucking, smoking and drinking. I will do my best to avoid allowing our sensual compatibility to interfere with my judgment.
“Kindhearted Woman Blues” was a fine selection for the opening track, as it demonstrates Robert Johnson’s willingness and ability to deviate from blues norms and structures in ways that enhance the drama of the tale he aims to tell. 6/4 time is the dominant time signature (though he varies that as well), and there are different but complementary melodies on the first and second verses. In the bridge—oh my fucking god the bridge—he changes not only the chord pattern but the timbre of his voice to reflect competing and contradictory emotions. In the opening lines, he sounds like a man attempting to remain emotionally distant, underscored by the narrative shift to third-person:
Ain’t but one thing
Makes Mr Johnson drink
It’s worried bout how you treat me baby
I begin to think
Then he breaks, emotionally and aurally, by shifting to falsetto, the cry of a humiliated, beaten man:
Oh my babe, my life don’t feel the same
You breaks my heart,
When you call me Mr So and So’s name
What follows the bridge is Robert Johnson’s only extended guitar solo, where he demonstrates the balanced attention to rhythm and melody that made Keith Richards think there were two guys playing instead of one. Even more impressive to me is how he’ll be singing a verse and for a line or two and then break the bass rhythm to accompany his singing with a harmonic counterpoint on the guitar. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe that these recordings were single-track recordings with no overdubs.
“I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” will likely be one of the most accessible numbers for rockers due to its classic boogie rhythm and the triplet attack that forms the main riff; others may be familiar with Elmore James’ fiery “Dust My Broom.” Robert Johnson gives a stand-up performance, but like others, I’m even more fascinated by the geographical references at the end of the song. To any black person living in the Delta during the 30’s, China, Ethiopia and The Philippines were as distant as Pluto, and just as mysterious.
Colorful and confusing geographical references also dominate “Sweet Home Chicago,” a Johnson adaptation of a song about Kokomo that has been covered by a slew of blues and rock artists. The confusion about the lyrics is found in the chorus:
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Back to the land of California
To my sweet home Chicago
I guarantee you that you won’t find anything like Chicago anywhere in the Golden State, so what was Robert Johnson thinking? Were the syllables of Chicago are a touch more mellifluous than those of Kokomo? As with everything having to do with Robert Johnson, there are several competing theories. One argues that Johnson may have been referring to Port Chicago, California, a town that ceased to exist in the late 1960’s and was famous for the massive explosion at the Naval Munitions Depot in July 1944 that killed over 300 people (many of them African-Americans) and the subsequent Port Chicago Mutiny. I can’t buy that theory because everything in Robert Johnson’s life indicated that he liked to be where the action was, and Port Chicago was buttfucksville in the middle of nowhere, far from the sin-infested environs of San Francisco. I’m more partial to the theory that the words are the deliberate expression of a man who loved to ramble, a rattling-off of places on his bucket list. As for the music . . . that “ohhhhh” that opens the early renditions of the chorus comes through loud and clear as a passionate longing for the open road, and the steady driving guitar mirrors his constitutional impatience to keep moving, moving, moving. And lo and behold, the next song is “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” where he feels the need to hightail it because “I got mean things on my mind,” a line he repeats several times and forms most of the last verse. The cause of those “mean things” is mistreatment by a woman, a common occurrence in Johnson’s songs, something I’ve always interpreted as psychological justification to dump a broad who no longer holds his interest.
While Robert Johnson was very likely the oats-sowing rogue, there was another side to his personality capable of empathy for the plight of women in a world dominated by cruel, heartless men like him. Johnson was a man of extremes, a man who beat women and loved them, a man who saw the opposite sex as potential enemies and possible friends. The contradiction is played out in the opening verses of “When You Got a Good Friend.”
When you got a good friend that will stay right by your side (2)
Give her all of your spare time
Love and treat her right
I mistreated my baby and I can’t see no reason why (2)
Every time I think about it
I just wring my hands and cry
Johnson sings this song with even more intensity than usual, and his expression of guilt comes across as deeply sincere.
The two takes of “Come On in My Kitchen” couldn’t be more different, and I have a strong preference for the original because the slower tempo allows the listener to savor both the performance and the poetry. The metaphors of winter and the howling wind reflect the cold, indifferent world of human affairs, and Johnson fully understood that the storms fall hardest on women:
When a woman gets in trouble
Everybody throws her down
Lookin’ for her good friend
None can be found
His performance of that verse seems suspended in time, an effect enhanced by the chord change on the third line. The use of monosyllables in the final line enhances the bleak finality of the fallen woman’s condition in society, and Johnson intensifies the effect by singing those words in a quiet, almost apologetic tone, the kind of tone you use to deliver bad news to a dear friend. While many listeners consider the song a seduction song—and sex was never far from Robert Johnson’s mind—the impact the song had on listeners, as described by traveling companion Johnny Shines in Jas Obrecht’s Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music, confirms the more empathetic interpretation:
One time in St, Louis we were playing one of the songs that Robert would like to play with someone once in a great while, ‘Come On In My Kitchen.’ He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we had quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realized they were crying—both women and men.
The chorus is an invitation for the woman to come into his kitchen, a role-swapping offer that would have been practically unimaginable in an era where the woman’s place was in the kitchen. Here Johnson takes on the nurturing role usually assigned to the mother, an unusually empathetic and courageous shift for a man to take:
Winter time’s comin’
It’s gonna be slow
You can’t make the winter babe
That’s dry long so
You’d better come on in my kitchen
Babe it going to be rainin’ outdoors
The brief aside where he whispers, “Can’t you hear the wind howl?” then replicates the sound of the wind on his guitar is one of my most cherished moments in music. As on many of his songs, he is unafraid to depart from the standard 12-bar pattern when the moment requires it. “Come On in My Kitchen” is one of Robert Johnson’s essential works, a stunning display of artistry and human sensitivity.
“Terraplane Blues” was Robert Johnson’s biggest hit, an extremely modest hit at that. A Terraplane was a car built by Hudson in the 1930’s, and in penning this number, Robert Johnson added his name to the long list of American songsmiths who have used cars and driving as sexual metaphors. The story in the song is that Robert has come home after a long journey to find that his Terraplane (his squeeze) won’t start (get wet), a condition that can only mean that someone’s been driving his Terraplane (giving the babe the hard one) in his absence. He attempts to strut his stuff but he fails to get much of a reaction:
I even flash my lights mama
This horn won’t even blow
Got a short in this connection
Hoo-well, babe, its way down below
Refusing to concede defeat, Robert decides he’d better roll up his tongue, straighten his dick and get to work on the sweet spot just below the pubes:
I’m on get deep down in this connection
Hoo-well keep on tanglin with your wires
And when I mash down your little starter
Then your spark plug will give me a fire.
I would love to travel back in time and set up a face-off between Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie to see who could come up with the raunchiest song. That would be a hoot!
“Phonograph Blues” is a less obvious sex number, and with this piece, the alternate take is by far the more energetic and interesting. According to Songfacts, a gentleman named Alexander Baron discovered that Johnson used a “mysterious tuning” (E-B-E-A-C♯-E) that he also used on “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” The tuning makes it easier for him to play the triplets that drive the alternate take, but also demonstrates a drive to bend the guitar to his will.
“32-20 Blues” is modified from an earlier Skip James composition, and here Johnson goes to the same dark place that the moody Mr. James favored in much of his music. The lyrics express the “nobody fucks with me” attitude that characterizes many gun-loving American males, similar to Jimmie Rodgers’ threats against poor Thelma in “Blue Yodel T for Texas.”
And if she gets unruly
Thinks she don’t wan’ do
If she gets unruly
Thinks she don’t wan’ do
Take my 32-20 now and
Cut her half in two
While it’s hard for me not to be appalled by the casual acceptance of murder as a conflict resolution tool, I can try rationalize the violent instincts of both Johnson and Rodgers by chalking it up to the old excuse, “Well, they lived in a different era . . .” Unfortunately, the ethos of that era thrives in America today, as booming gun sales and NRA control of the political system demonstrate. Since I’ve given up believing that Americans will ever leave the Wild West, I have to recognize these songs for what they are: true folk songs in the American tradition, and leave it at that.
At this point in the record, I need a colossal mood shift and Robert Johnson delivers with “They’re Red Hot.” I’ve always found Robert Johnson’s impatience with traditional 12-bar blues an exciting aspect of his work, but here he abandons the blues altogether with a ragtime pattern that is an absolute delight. His vocal is an amazing combination of rough growl, spoken word and octave leaps, all delivered at a hundred miles an hour. There is no question that he’s having a great time, but what is most tantalizing about this song is to speculate on how he might have influenced the blues had he lived longer and achieved fame, given his willingness to challenge convention.
I don’t know too many men who will confess to situational impotence in a public forum, but Robert Johnson stands up—well, no, he doesn’t stand up, literally speaking—and confesses that his inability to put up a stiff one has cost him his girl. In “Dead Shrimp Blues,” Robert attributes the limp dick to stress (“I couldn’t do nothin, till I got myself unwound”), a relatively common cause for this debilitating condition and most likely the reason “Dead Shrimp Blues” hasn’t become the theme song for Viagra commercials. Since a droopy stick is something most males would be terrified to own up to, this is one courageous song . . . with absolutely no marketing potential whatsoever.
The iconic “Cross Road Blues” proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the only person who can truly do Robert Johnson songs justice is Robert Johnson. Cream’s heavy rock version kills the spirit of the song; Elmore James transformed it into another lost-my-baby blues number. The experience of listening to “Cross Road Blues” is hearing a fellow human being crying out in deep distress about a choice he has to make—a significant life choice where none of the available options present a clear way out of his dilemma. More than anything else, the song communicates that distress—the existential anguish, the fear of making the wrong choice, the disaster scenarios imagined when facing the potential consequences of a bad decision. You hear it in Robert Johnson’s timbre, deeply colored by his anxiety; you hear it in the impossibly complex rhythm that responds more to his emotional state than to metrical requirements; you hear it in the inherent uncertainty communicated by a slide guitar; you hear it in the intensely picked chords and notes. “Cross Road Blues” is a stark portrait of the man facing existential crisis, knowing no one will lend him a helping hand:
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above, “Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please”
Ooh, standin’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride
Ooh-ee, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by
Advice: next time you’re at the crossroads in your life, listen to Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues.” It won’t provide you with answers, but it is always comforting to know that you’re not the only one who has felt exactly what you’re feeling.
Next the restless Mr. Johnson covers the Son House number, “Walking Blues,” throwing in a little Blind Lemon Jefferson into the lyrical mix. Of greater interest is “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” where Johnson borrows snatches from other Delta songs to tell the story of the convict lease system operating in the South at the turn of the century. The site EarlyBlues.com features a penetrating historical analysis of the song by Max Haymes. Johnson sings “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” from the perspective of the black convict forced to work for the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad, described by Haymes as a “horrific and barbarous” experience. Mr. Haymes’ most insightful contribution is to clarify the content of one key verse that is only rendered phonetically (and inaccurately) on the website for the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation.
That cal (sic) ain’t been an’ seen,
Gal ain’t been an’ seen,
That gal ain’t been an’ seen, good Lord,
On that Gulfport Island Road.
Haymes writes, “A sense of anger appears in Johnson’s voice in this verse, as well it might. The words allude to undetected murders of black prisoners in the Southern penal system; a theme which keeps cropping up in the Blues.” The insistent rhythm Johnson uses to accompany his vocal expresses both urgency and outrage. Robert Johnson’s music is not often linked with social protest, giving “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” a special place in his catalog—and giving the listener greater appreciation of his reach.
The guitar work on “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” is a tour de force. Played at a much quicker tempo, Johnson is all over that fretboard, bending notes with lightning speed, inserting contrasting riffs and intense strums that seem to come from nowhere but never cause him to break the rhythm. If there’s one song on the record that qualifies Robert Johnson as a guitar virtuoso, this is it . . . although the pizzicato on the next track, “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” is pretty damned impressive as well.
Several of the other songs in the collection reinforces Johnson’s major themes. “Stones in My Passway” is somewhat similar to “Cross Road Blues,” focusing more on the lack of clarity in the situation than personal anguish. “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man” curiously celebrates his sexual prowess while he’s stuck in a losing streak (“But I haven’t got no sweet woman . . . boys, to be rollin’ this way.”) “From Four Till Late,” most famously covered very badly by Cream, is almost a country song in terms of feel, featuring the use of the I-VI7-II7-V7 chord pattern to add some variation to the typical blues pattern.
“Hellhound on My Trail” takes the rambling theme and turns it upside-down. As Ted Gioia put it, “now the trip takes on darker tones, the traveler is pursued.” The song itself is a variation of several pre-existing works, but what makes Johnson’s version stand out is his performance. The tone in his voice is of a man consumed with fear who has lost his capability for rational thought—he repeats several phrases in each verse like a man neurotically muttering to himself about the dangers that surround him:
I got to keep movin’, I’ve got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
Umm-mm-mm-mm, blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
And the day keeps on worryin’ me, the day keeps worryin’ me
There’s a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail
In the final verse he uses his slide to express the deep sense of foreboding he finds mirrored in nature:
I can tell the wind is risin’
The leaves tremblin’ on the tree, tremblin’ on the tree
The mood Robert Johnson creates in “Hellhound on My Trail” is almost frightening in its intensity, for it calls up those experiences we would most like to forget: the times when life seems to be conspiring against us at every turn, when we can’t do anything right. Ironically, hearing someone go to the darkest reaches of the soul proves to be a liberating experience, as it teaches us how easily our perceptions can be distorted through fear.
Thankfully, the lighter “Little Queen of Spades” and “Malted Milk” follow, palpably lightening the mood, as hot women and booze often do. The downsides of malt liquor are explored in “Drunken-Hearted Man,” where we’re not sure if Robert is speaking for himself or playing a role. The narrator attributes his downfall to a combination of a tough childhood and “no-goods women,” concluding that sin was his downfall. That doesn’t sound like the Robert Johnson I know and love, so either he was in a very bad mood that day or he’s playing a part.
“Me and the Devil Blues” deals with the darkest regions of a man’s soul: the possessive, dominant, fearful side that often leads a man to believe that he has the inalienable right to beat the shit out of a woman:
Early this mornin’ when you knocked upon my door (2)
And I said, “Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go.”
Me and the Devil was walkin’ side by side
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman until I get satisfied
The narrator of the song has a “learned helplessness” common to batterers . . . it’s usually the woman who caused him to cross the line . . . or “I don’t know what came over me.” In the closing verse, Johnson captures the equally prevalent self-loathing that often follows abuse and connects it to the ever-present Johnsonian desire to keep moving, to escape both self and consequences:
You may bury my body down by the highway side
(Baby, I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone)
You may bury my body, ooh, down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride
Having served as a volunteer in domestic violence shelters for many years, I have deeply mixed feelings about this song. On one hand, the story is too sickeningly familiar, and calls up images of bruises, contusions and faces swollen beyond recognition. What I appreciate about the song is its brutal honesty and the depth of self-disclosure. We’ll never know for certain that Robert Johnson abused women, but the tough guy persona he displays in songs like “32-20 Blues” points in that direction.
“Stop Breaking Down Blues” is a bit more ambiguous on the subject, though the fact that the broad pulls a pistol on him reminds us it takes two to tango. Still, you can’t deny the confidence in his vocal as he shifts from a trash-talking rant to sotto voce undertones in a wink of an eye. As he belts out the blue notes, you can understand why so many artists have covered this song—it’s a song that you just gotta fucking sing!
“Traveling Riverside Blues” is a song title that would likely call up images of Huck and Jim on their doomed trip to Cairo, mais en contraire! This sucker is about all the poontang Mr. Johnson finds on his travels up and down river. But while he’s dickin’ ‘em in Vicksburg and bonkin’ ‘em in Tennessee, Robert has one hot babe in Friars Point who he says “hops all over me.” You go, girl! The hottest part of the song is the last verse, just as a climax should be:
Now you can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my…
(spoken) ’Til the juice run down my leg, baby, you know what I’m talkin’ about
You can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my leg
(spoken) That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout, now
But I’m goin’ back to Friars Point, if I be rockin’ to my head
Having learned that our lady of Friars Point is the mistress of the hand job, our mind wanders back to the curious verse where he hints at her appearance:
I ain’t gon’ to state no color, but her front teeth crowned with gold
I ain’t gon’ to state no color, but her front teeth is crowned with gold
She got a mortgage on my body, now, and a lien on my soul
A black man sticking it to a white woman in the 1930’s South would have considered himself damned fortunate to live to the ripe old age of twenty-seven. It’s entirely possible that he was engaging in stud jive, but something tells me Robert Johnson was a guy who liked to test the limits.
He was also a man who jumped between extremes—in “Honeymoon Blues” he proposes marriage to a girl named Betty Mae. The tension of the opposites within Robert Johnson—begging the Lord for mercy one minute, making deals with the devil the next—is one of the things I find most appealing about him. He is Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the comedy and the tragedy, the brutal lout and the tender, compassionate lover.
But most of all, Robert Johnson was a musical artist of the highest order, a man who synthesized the work of the many great blues artists who preceded him and raised the genre to the highest level. “Love in Vain Blues” is one of his greatest accomplishments, a sad and beautiful song about the emptiness one feels when the power of the love we feel for another is not enough to move the other to respond in kind. With his voice and through his lyrics, Robert Johnson expresses the essence of the experience—not only the feeling of utter loss but also the heightened perception of symbolic meaning in the immediate environment common to those experiencing grief:
When the train rolled up to the station
I looked her in the eye (2)
Well, I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome
And I could not help but cry
All my love’s in vain
When the train, it left the station
With two lights on behind (2)
Well, the blue light was my blues
And the red light was my mind
The only cover of a Robert Johnson song that I approve and adore is The Stones’ version of “Love in Vain.” Keith Richards’ decision to change the arrangement and give it a country feel avoided any direct comparisons to the original while respecting the essence of the song.
“Love in Vain” should have ended this collection—nothing can follow that song—but instead the compilers closed with two takes of “Milkcow Calf Blues.” No Robert Johnson performance is a waste of time, but after “Love in Vain” I’m spent and I don’t want to hear anything else.
We live in a world where music creation and performance is dominated by technological advances and electronic wizardry. Having given positive reviews to several technology-driven albums, I’m hardly a natural instrument purist. What I do believe is very few of the recordings made since Robert Johnson’s etched his voice and guitar onto wax compare with the sheer power of the music that came out of those two sections. The experience of listening to The Complete Recordings is intensely intimate, for a man is allowing you to peer into his heart and soul, the light and the darkness, the good and the evil. No other record I own can bring me in touch with my own essence, the light and darkness, the good and the evil . . . and for that I will be eternally grateful to the handsome man from Mississippi who died too young but whose music will live forever.
After I graduated from college and returned to my childhood home for the we-love you-but-please-get-your-ass-out-of-the-house-dear-daughter ritual, my dad, feeling sentimental as he watched me rip my Iggy Pop poster from the bedroom wall, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He told me I could help myself to any five LP’s from his vast vinyl collection.
“Only five?” I cried.
“I’ll leave the rest to you in my will,” he said, shaking his head at what a greedy little bitch of a daughter he had raised.
I dropped what I was doing and headed for the living room, where he kept his treasure on every available piece of shelf space. He had over a thousand LP’s and I’d heard each and every one during my formative years, with varying degrees of attention. Sighing at the sheer difficulty at the task ahead but somewhat inclined to take a trip down memory lane, I started with the A’s (The Allman Brothers) and worked my way to the Z’s (Frank Zappa).
I literally spent all day and night fingering through the collection, pulling out possibilities and playing emotional tug of war with myriad possibilities. Should I go for Super Session or East-West? Do I dare break up his Beatles’ collection? (I didn’t, but I am looking forward to the day he croaks so I can become a proud owner of the original Yesterday and Today cover.) Ogden’s Nut-Gone Flake? Face to Face? Wheels of Fire? Pleasures of the Harbor? Stand Back!? Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music? Sketches of Spain? The experience turned out to be harrowing, but finally, drenched with sweat, sentimentality and angst, I called him into the living room to announce my selections.
“The good news is I’m letting you keep Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge and The Grand Funk Railroad,” I smirked.
“No surprise there,” he laughed. “Show me what you got so I can get started on the grieving process.”
I pulled them out one by one. Having a Rave-Up with The Yardbirds elicited a groan. Surrealistic Pillow yielded a tender smile. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band earned a comment, “Thank God it’s not East-West.” The fourth, Judy Collins’ In My Life, caused him to tear up a bit. However, my fifth selection sparked a change in his visage from nostalgic to stern and led to an irresolvable dispute.
“Nope, not that one.”
“What? You said any five!”
“Not that one. It’s out of print. Pick something else.”
“You prick!” I replied.
“I can live with that. Now pick something else.”
I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of winning this argument, so I grabbed Live at Leeds and was gratified to elicit another groan. “Serves you right, you welcher,” I taunted.
The album in dispute was, of course, The Great Twenty-Eight by Chuck Berry. I knew that Chuck Berry: The Anthology had been released a few years before, but the attraction of good old-fashioned vinyl with that nice big album sleeve was too hard to resist. There were other compilations, but I didn’t want anything that had that fucking “My Ding-a-Ling” song on it. I wanted The Great Twenty-Eight in blessed analog format because I wanted to experience what John Lennon had heard as a kid while listening to a crackly radio in his room on Menlove Avenue. I wanted to feel the same kind of inspiration that you won’t find in the sound quality, but in the rhythm, in the singing style, in the now-classic guitar licks and in the devil-may-care energy of early rock.
It took me a couple of years to find a relatively pristine copy (in part because I had devoted a large part of that period of my life to sharpening my bisexual fucking skills), but my patience was rewarded. I’ve also forgiven my father for being an asshole about the whole thing, because if I had been in his place, I would have done the same thing.
I have empathy, people!
Much has been written about Chuck Berry’s contributions, and the general consensus is that he’s pretty much the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” His guitar stylings alone would have qualified him for legend status, and the list of guitarists he influenced is a mile long. More importantly, no other early composer made the ironic synergy between black blues and white hillbilly music work so seamlessly, giving early rock a crossover power that few genres have ever had. The Beatles and The Stones covered several of his compositions, and before the critics started labeling Brian Wilson a musical genius, he borrowed “Sweet Little Sixteen” as the musical base for “Surfin’ U. S. A.” (and was forced to turn over the copyright to the ARC Music Group, owners of Berry’s catalog). Of the early rockers who actually wrote most of their own songs (sorry, Elvis), only Little Richard and Buddy Holly can approach Chuck Berry’s lasting influence.
While his guitar work and his classic rock patterns were deeply influential, one of his strengths that is often ignored is his ability to write exceptionally compelling lyrics. Most early rock music consists pretty much of variations of “I love you, baby,” “You made a fool out of me, you bitch” or songs about dancing. Many of Chuck Berry’s songs contained vivid descriptions of life in concrete language in the context of great stories full of humor and narrative tension. While he frequently wrote songs designed to appeal to the white teenage market (that’s where the money was), he also wrote about the traditional subjects of love and sexual attraction from perspectives other than the malt shop, often adding discreet social commentary in the process.
Chuck also put out a few stinkers, and when he’d found a gimmick that tickled teenage fancy enough to pull them out of the back seats of their oversized automobiles and spend their allowances at the record shop, Chuck would milk it until the cow ran dry. He frequently re-purposed his own compositions, changing the lyrics and throwing in a musical variation or two. Hence “School Days” was refurbished with a new story line and became “No Particular Place to Go.”
The Great Twenty-Eight takes us through Chuck’s entire period with Chess, from 1955 to 1965, generally in chronological order. The only inexplicable absence is “You Never Can Tell,” which happens to be one of my favorite Chuck Berry songs, dammit! Astute researchers will note a significant time gap between the release of “Come On” in October 1961 and “Nadine” in February 1964. Chuck spent a good part of that time doing a stretch in prison on seriously trumped-up charges involving a 14-year old Native American girl. When he left prison, he found himself riding a new wave of popularity due to the dozens of covers by British Invasion bands . . . but we’re getting ahead of our story.
We begin our journey in July of 1955, the year when the Brooklyn Dodgers would finally win their first and only championship (they would not become the Fucking Dodgers until they moved to Los Angeles and were christened thus by fired-up San Franciscans). July was a big month that year, featuring the opening of Disneyland and no less than three significant events in popular music history that exposed the socio-cultural tensions in the United States during the post-McCarthy years of the Eisenhower administration: the national debut of The Lawrence Welk Show, the rise of Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” to the top of the Billboard charts, and the first single released by Chuck Berry, a clever little ditty by the name of . . .
“Maybellene”: Based on an old Bob Wills fiddle tune and named after a tube of mascara, Berry’s first hit single (heavily influenced by Chess bossman Leonard Chess) was specifically designed to appeal to young, horny hot rodders. When Chess ordered Berry to update the lyrics to achieve that end, Berry exceeded all expectations by coming back with an attention-grabbing narrative filled with you-are-there imagery:
As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville
A Cadillac a-rollin’ on the open road
Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford
The Cadillac doin’ about ninety-five
She’s bumper to bumper, rollin’ side by side
When I hear the opening guitar lick, my 1990’s-programmed ear says shouts to the rest of my brain, “Is he using a distortion pedal?” The part attached to my vocal cords says, “No, silly, they wouldn’t be invented for years.” If you’ve ever seen today’s guitarists in live performances, you’ll see that they all have a huge rack of foot pedals to help them achieve various and sundry effects—few of which are as exciting as the tone Chuck Berry achieved with a relatively cheap amp using primitive recording technology.
“Maybellene” is hot and sassy, and must have seemed like the harbinger of the anti-Christ to all those Lawrence Welk fans who tuned in to hear the sweetly inoffensive Lennon Sisters and go gaga at the sight of a band surrounded by soap bubbles. The comparison to Bill Haley’s number is even more telling, as Bill Haley’s approach to rock was more “Let’s have some fun, kids” and Chuck Berry’s approach was more “Let’s do the deed, kids!” “Rock Around the Clock” is corny. “Maybellene” is hot. You could say that Bill Haley’s sound was the sound of “white people rock” and Chuck Berry’s was “black people rock,” and had you made that comment back in 1955, you would have been 100% correct. As rock continued to develop over the years, more white artists would begin to approach their work with the joy and abandon of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, effectively blurring the color line (Elvis and Buddy Holly being the original blurrers). Those who chose to remain forthright and uptight could look forward to twenty-seven-and-one-half fucking years of The Lawrence Welk Show.
“Thirty Days”: The musical twin of “Maybellene” with a similar guitar intro and the exact same rhythm, so the distinguishing features of this song are found in the lyrics. The thirty-day limit in the first verse is a warning to his woman that she’d better get her ass back home in thirty days. In the next two verses, however, the narrator resorts to the criminal justice system to attempt to get his woman back—an ironic step for a black man to take in the pre-civil rights era. Interestingly, Berry threatens to take his problem to the United Nations, beating Eddie Cochran to the punch by about three years.
“You Can’t Catch Me”: Another car song (again, when Chuck found a winning formula, he had a hard time letting it go), this one is noted primarily as the song that caused Berry’s music publisher to sue John Lennon for ripping off the “here come a flattop” line for “Come Together.” Despite the thematic repetition, Chuck’s vocal is strong and confident, the piano backing is pretty cool and the song moves exceptionally well.
“Too Much Monkey Business”: Chuck’s fifth single came out in 1956, the year that millions of boring Americans went to the polls to re-elect a boring president who was lucky enough to run against an even greater bore. While the masses proclaimed “We like Ike,” marveled at the wonders of American progress in the field of consumerism and delighted in their white shirt conformity, Chuck Berry argued that conformity was more of a threat to liberty than communism.
“Too Much Monkey Business” is the anti-Happy Days theme. Each verse is devoted to a link in the conformity chain (wage slavery, consumerism, marriage, education, bureaucracy, militarism and the job), and at the end of all but the first verse Chuck symbolically shakes his head in disgust with a growled “aah”:
Runnin’ to-and-fro, hard workin’ at the mill
Never fail in the mail, yeah, come a rotten bill
Too much monkey business, too much monkey business
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in
Salesman talkin’ to me, tryin’ to run me up a creek
Says you can buy now, go on and try, you can pay me next week, ahh!
In addition to an exceptionally fluid vocal performance, Chuck is seriously hot on the guitar, with a ripping opener, a frenetic, extended solo and some fabulous fills.
“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”: This was the flip side of “Too Much Monkey Business,” a pairing that has to make anyone’s top ten lists for the greatest singles in rock history. Inspired by a scene he personally witnessed in California where a Mexican man was hauled away by the cops while his woman shouted at them to let him go, Chuck subtly raises the terrifying specter of the non-white man’s attractiveness to white women while throwing in subtle digs at fundamentally oppressive and corrupt criminal justice system:
Arrested on charges of unemployment,
He was sitting in the witness stand
The judge’s wife called up the district attorney
She said, “Free that brown-eyed man.
If you want your job you better free that brown-eyed man.”
In the USA, you’re certainly treated like a criminal when you’re out of a job, and as a guy who had already done a stretch in reform school for armed robbery, Chuck Berry had some experience with the inherent corruption in the American legal system.
“Roll Over Beethoven”: The revolution is now! Compared to the million or so covers of this song, the original shines with its testosterone-dripping vocal serving both as the conveyor of the anti-square lyrics and a vital component of the song’s driving rhythm. When the band starts driving the sucker home in the final chorus, Chuck sounds like he’s shaking with erotic delight. While concert music appeals to emotions and intellect, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten off listening to Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, and this celebration of the erotic foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, solidly grounded in the blues, is the perfect cure for any Puritan hang-ups or Catholic guilt hanging around the psyche.
“Havana Moon”: Chuck tries to go Latin on us and the result is massive disappointment. Look, if I wanted 1950’s Latin, I’d turn on I Love Lucy and hope that Ricky Ricardo does “Babalú” in his set at the Tropicana.
“School Days”: While it’s apparent that this song was aimed squarely at white teenagers of the time, “School Days” has turned out to be one of Chuck Berry’s most timeless compositions. When I reflect on my brief existence, I can think of no greater waste of time than the years I spent in an American high school, an environment characterized by lazy, tenured teachers, whitewashed textbooks, ludicrously rigid schedules and seriously confused adolescents. Chuck captures the ennui of the school day in tone and lyric, and though we didn’t have malt shops and jukeboxes in the 90’s, getting the fuck out of there at the end of the day definitely qualified as a “lay your burden down” experience after hours of repressing everything from sexual urges to native intelligence. It’s comforting to know that the teenagers of the 50’s had the same things on their minds that I always have on mine—sex and music:
Drop the coin right into the slot
You’re gotta hear somethin’ that’s really hot
With the one you love, you’re makin’ romance
All day long you been wantin’ to dance,
Feeling the music from head to toe
Round and round and round we go
“Rock and Roll Music”: Great song, but we’d have to wait another seven years for John Lennon to do this song justice. Chuck Berry’s vocal is surprisingly tame, especially when compared to Lennon’s let-it-the-fuck-out performance and Chuck’s own performance on “Roll Over Beethoven.”
“Baby Doll”: Another song for the high school crowd that falls far short of “School Days.” Apparently this was recorded during Chuck’s “Letter Sweater” phase.
“Reelin’ and Rockin’”: Chuck gets back in the groove with a driving, swing-your-partner-round-and-round number with a curious opening guitar bit that is reminiscent of the tones I hear in the Jeff Beck era of the Yardbirds. Great piano runs from either Johnny Johnson or Lafayette Leake—both are credited on the album One Dozen Berrys.
“Sweet Little Sixteen”: One of the classic singles of the era, “Sweet Little Sixteen” is loaded with socio-cultural ironies. Let’s just take the second variation of the chorus as an example:
‘Cause they’ll be rockin’ on Bandstand
In Philadelphia P. A.
Though Chuck Berry appeared on American Bandstand, he sure as hell didn’t see any people of color in the teenage dance crowd. That’s because station WFIL banned black teenagers from the studio audience, a prohibition that led to brawls between black and white teenagers on the streets outside. The station was located in a West Philadelphia neighborhood that had already been a focal point of the struggle against racial discrimination in housing, as more African-Americans flocked to West Philly, developed vibrant neighborhoods and pissed off the white demographic. You can find an excellent socio-historical analysis of American Bandstand on Matthew F. Delmont’s website, The Nicest Kids in Town.
The last verse highlights the hypocrisy regarding the double standard and the strict gender expectations of the time:
Sweet little sixteen
She’s got the grown up blues
Tight dresses and lipstick
She’s sportin’ high heel shoes
Oh, but tomorrow morning
She’ll have to change her trend
And be sweet sixteen
And back in class again
The real girl is the one in tight dresses, lipstick and high-heel shoes; the repressed phony is the girl in high school. While most early feminists would run like hell from any honest discussion of female sexuality, here we have a vivid image of a girl wants to feel hot and look hot—and that doesn’t have anything to do with oppression or “learned behavior.” It’s fun to feel sexy, be sexy and look sexy! While this verse may very well reflect male fantasies, what the fuck is wrong with that? People think about sex! Early, late and often! Get over it!
It’s important to note that our little girl was very likely to be labeled a slut by the insecure males of the era, but we’ll cover that aspect of the male psyche when we explore Dion’s contributions to the topic. Cultural complexities aside, “Sweet Little Sixteen” is one hot song with an irresistible chorus and a superb use of stop-time techniques.
“Johnny B. Goode”: It’s just one classic after another with Chuck Berry, isn’t it? From the time Elvis first appeared on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show, young boys have seen the guitar as a powerful and complex symbol. Some saw it as a way to grab attention, others as a way to get girls, and a few others were fascinated by its musical and rhythmic potential. “The guitar is a miniature orchestra in itself,” said Beethoven, a very early recognition of the instrument’s unlimited potential. While the guitar had been used in jazz and classical music, and was a staple in country, folk and blues music, it was rock ‘n’ roll—with a huge assist from television—that turned the guitar into something more than accompaniment.
Although some of the early rockers pounded pianos (Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino), the piano could have never become the center of rock ‘n’ roll for several reasons. One, it was associated with the piano lessons many kids were forced to endure when they would have rather been outside playing baseball or throwing rocks in the pond. Two, in the 50’s, the piano was associated with squares like Liberace, and glam rock was years away. Three, you can’t hold a piano like you can hold a guitar—you can cradle a guitar in your hands like you’d cradle a lover. Last but not least, guitars were a lot cheaper and a lot more portable than a piano—you can’t take a piano to a beach party and you can’t pull it out of your trunk and serenade your honey when your more pedestrian attempts to get past second base have failed.
Think about it: can you imagine a video game called “Piano Hero?”
If it comes out, I want in on the royalties.
“Johnny B. Goode” established the archetype of the guitar hero, and appropriately, Chuck lets it rip in an energetic variation of the opening riff to “Roll Over Beethoven.” It’s a more than suitable introduction, because this is a song that starts with pedal to the floor and never lets up. The story of the poor boy (and his mama) discovering that his guitar playing could forge a path out of poverty and into stardom is a fairy tale that has come true for many successful rockers and still has power today, even with rock in decline. “Johnny B. Goode” is really an updated version of the Horatio Alger myth—and a helluva lot sexier.
“Around and Around”: Chuck varies the rhythm and dynamics in this number, similar in theme to “Rock and Roll Music.” While I appreciate the slight variation, I wish the instrumental passage had been more than a simple repetition of the background rhythm. The Stones and The Dead both got a lot more out of this sucker.
“Carol”: Not my favorite. The lyrics are unusually awkward, the story line confusing and the music is “meh.” Apparently neither Carol nor the narrator can dance, which makes for a less-than-compelling dance song.
“Beautiful Delilah”: A spunky little ripper with a fab opening riff and serious blue note bends on both chords and single notes, I rarely bother listening to the words when this song comes on. This song is about Chuck Berry, guitarist, and he steps up big time here.
As for the story, the girl in the center of the story is a more mature version of Sweet Little Sixteen, seriously focused on using her sexual power to bring the boys to their knees. She’s a precursor of Runaround Sue, and though Chuck doesn’t get as apoplectic as Dion does about a woman having multiple partners, he does comment that “Maybe she will settle down marry after a while.”
Fat chance, dickhead.
“Memphis, Tennessee”: A song that’s been covered by more people than you can count, this one doesn’t move my needle a bit. The discovery that Marie is a 6-year old kid is one of those corny, sentimental twists that often end Spielberg movies, and I hate Spielberg movies. Yeah, I know it’s sad when marriages break up and kids get hurt in the process, but this crosses the line into gross sentimentality without providing much in the way of insight.
“Sweet Little Rock and Roller”: Ditto for this one. The lyrics never come together into an interesting narrative and these stories of rock chicks dressed to the nines and ready for action are starting to get irritating. Move on, Chuck!
“Little Queenie”: Ah, that’s better. It’s still the hot girl theme, but here Chuck allows her to play a part in the classic seduction ritual that begins with the innocuous words, “Wanna dance?” Chuck slips into spoken word for the inner dialogue of the lusting male and nails the tone of delightfully evil intent as he plots his way into her pants:
Meanwhile, I was still thinkin’
If it’s a slow song, we’ll omit it
If it’s a rocker, then we’ll get it
And if it’s good, she’ll admit it
C’mon Queenie, let’s get with it
“Almost Grown”: Chuck Berry rarely used background singers, but when he did, he sure knew how to pick ‘em! Etta James with Harvey & the New Moonglows (who had just hired a young kid named Marvin Gaye) knock it out of the park with a soulful combination of call-and-response and scat vocals. Chuck also varied the formula by holding off on the guitar solo until the second instrumental passage, allowing the piano to provide the fills.
Chuck Berry’s radar was always focused on shifts in his audience demographic, so here he gives us the story about a guy who’s “done married and settled down.” Only a few years before, rockers were ripping up movie theaters, but the combination of Elvis going into the army and the multiple tragedies on The Day the Music Died sucked the life out of the party. The 50’s teen revolution was an adolescent revolution without purpose; the teens of the time didn’t give a shit about politics and never questioned consumerism, segregation or American foreign policy the way their younger sisters and brothers would in the mid-60’s. “Almost Grown” is a dismissal of “the silly things we did as teenagers,” opening the path that would allow this mini-generation to eventually color the entire era with the pastels of nostalgia and turn the Fonz into an inoffensive folk hero:
You know I’m still livin’ in town
But I done married and settled down
Now I really have a ball
So I don’t browse around at all
Don’t bother just leave us alone
Anyway we’re almost grown
“Back in the U. S. A.”: If it seems odd that a black man living most of his life under varying degrees of Jim Crow would write a song celebrating the virtues of the home of the brave, it must be pointed out that Chuck wrote this song after doing a tour in Australia, and this song compares his lifestyle to the primitive existence of the Australian Aborigines. In that context, the song mirrors the tone of the argument Martin Luther King adopted in the “I Have a Dream” speech, basically, “We believe in the same things you do.” While Dr. King was referring to the rights embedded in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Chuck Berry focused on less lofty benefits of the American experience:
Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, and a jukebox jumping with records like in the U.S.A.
On that score, consider me as patriotic as Chuck. The French make lousy burgers and pay very little attention to rock ‘n’ roll.
“Let It Rock”: Chuck rips off his own “Johnny B. Goode” in a song about working on the railroad. Hey! Whatever happened to that ditty? “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the live-long day . . .” And who was Dinah and why did she blow a horn? Was the horn some kind of sexual euphemism? What was going on in those Pullman cars anyway?
You can see that “Let It Rock” is one of those songs that encourages the mind to wander.
“Bye Bye Johnny”: Yecch. I hate sequels as much as I hate Spielberg movies. Chuck should have let us just imagine the poor kid making it big and moved on.
“I’m Talking About You”: Covered by The Stones, The Hollies and even Hot Tuna, the song lends itself to multiple variations because of its exceptionally strong groove. But what really knocks me out on this cut is Reggie Boyd’s bass. Jesus shit, could that fucker play! He proved to be a challenging person to research, but apparently he was a renowned Chicago jazz guitarist and teacher with exceptional knowledge of music theory and history and gave lessons to guys like Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Rush. This is a bass part light years ahead of anything going on in rock during the 50’s.
“Come On”: Chuck’s last single before entering the slammer is one of my favorite Chuck Berry records. I love Martha Berry’s (Chuck’s sister) harmonies, the sax support and the lyrical depiction of the all-too common experience that one piece of bad news deserves another:
Everything is wrong since me and my baby parted
All day long I’m walkin’ ’cause I couldn’t get my car started
Laid off from job and I can’t afford to check it
I wish somebody’d come along and run into it and wreck it
“Come On” was the Rolling Stones’ first single, a version Mick Jagger correctly described as “shit.”
“Nadine (Is That You?)”: A free man once again, Chuck Berry took “Maybellene,” slowed it down a tad, parked the car and pursued his woman on foot and by taxi. Supported by smooth saxophone and a good steady groove, what makes this song one of Chuck Berry’s greatest are the remarkable lyrics and Chuck’s exceptional phrasing. The lyrics are full of fascinating similes (“She move around like a wave of summer breeze” and “I was movin’ through the traffic like a mounted cavalier”) and memorable imagery:
I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back
And started walkin’ toward a coffee-colored Cadillac
I was pushin’ through the crowd to get to where she’s at
And I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat
Chuck also knows how to move a story forward without wasting words:
Downtown searching for ‘er, looking all around
Saw her getting in a yellow cab heading up town
I caught a loaded taxi, paid up everybody’s tab
Flipped a twenty dollar bill, told him ‘catch that yellow cab
Testifying to the strength of Chuck Berry’s lyrics, both Dylan and Springsteen adored the words to “Nadine.”
“No Particular Place to Go”: Obviously impatient to get back in the groove after wasting away in jail—and never a guy interested in reinventing the wheel—Chuck takes “School Days” and turns it into “No Particular Place to Go,” a song about sexual frustration triggered by a jammed seat belt. While I would look at such a challenge as an opportunity to test out a new form of bondage, Chuck instead drives home for a date with a cold shower. As on “Nadine,” Chuck’s vocal is strong, confident and nuanced. I love the way he dampens his vocal on the line “So I told her softly and sincere” and his tension-loaded staccato delivery on “Can you imagine the way I felt/I couldn’t unfasten her safety belt.” While the tune is beyond familiar, Chuck manages to make it work with his palpable energy and sense of humor.
“I Want to Be Your Driver”: This song closed out the album Chuck Berry in London, but really, they should have gone with “You Never Can Tell,” which truly qualifies as one of the great twenty-eight.
Chuck Berry’s music will never dazzle you with unexpected chord changes and thematic texture: it’s classic twelve-bar, three-chord blues with few variations. The music serves primarily as the foundation for the vocal and lead guitar performances. It sounds exceptionally tight and energetic because Chuck was an exceptional musician lucky enough to work at Chess Records in Chicago, where he could work with of the best musicians of the day: Willie Dixon, Johnnie Johnson, Lafayette Leake. Chuck is an energetic guitar player, but what he lacks in precision he more than compensates for with his sense of rhythm.
Though his music might be (and should be) relatively simple, Chuck Berry managed to accomplish something very few musical artists manage to achieve: he changed lives. When you sit down with The Great Twenty-Eight, the first sounds you hear are the lo-fi guitar coming out of a tube amp shoved back against the wall of the studio, all warm, fuzzy and sexy as Berry glides into “Maybellene,” delivering a spirited vocal with exquisite enunciation at just the right points. As the song proceeds to that primitive but exciting lead solo, imagine yourself a scruffy kid in far off England in the late 1950’s, stuck at the lower layers of the social strata with nothing to look forward to in the future but a dreary sameness, as your life path was determined for you long before you were born. If you were that kid, what you heard in Chuck Berry’s music was so much more than fantastic, kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll.
You heard the way out.